It was on a cruise ship that I was introduced to John Lasseter, the chief creative mind at Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar is the wholly owned subsidiary of Disney that produced "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "Monsters Inc.," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and other computer-generated films that adults can enjoy as much as children.
He was a guest lecturer aboard the Disney Magic, showing some unreleased Pixar short subjects and talking trivia about the studio's feature films.
Perhaps in his off-hours, Lasseter was making notes about cruise ships. In "WALL-E," Pixar's latest film, some of the action takes place on a gigantic spaceship that holds the entire population of Earth. It also holds more than a passing resemblance to a cruise ship and is in fact described as a space cruise ship (or words to that effect) in articles about the movie on the New York Times, USA Today and Time magazine websites.
When moviegoers first see the ship, it has played host to the planet's population for 700 years, and during that period, succeeding generations of humans have evolved into supersized adults who are, in form and lifestyle, little more than oversized, helpless babies. They don't leave their reclining chairs, which transport them around the ship as they eat, shop and watch whatever is on the screen that's always in front of their faces.
This is not a very appealing portrait of cruising. And I couldn't help but wonder if executives at Royal Caribbean felt any discomfort about the timing of the film's release and their recent announcements regarding the construction of the Oasis of the Seas, billed as the largest cruise ship in the world. So I called Vicki Freed, RCCL's senior vice president of sales, to ask if she had seen the movie.
She had not. "Oh my God, how funny!" she said after I described the spaceship to her.
While the movie doesn't state exactly when the ship left Earth, Freed suspects she can pinpoint its departure with some specificity: The ship, she believes, must have launched well before 2008.
"The reality is that it [cruising] was like that at one time. It was sedentary and about eating. There was an old joke that you came on as a passenger and left as cargo.
"The movie sounds like it's exploiting a stereotype, poking fun at the passivity and overeating. But people who cruise today will probably enjoy it as retro, as a view of what cruising used to be about."
Isn't she bothered that it might perpetuate the stereotype? "Not at all. Cruising has changed; passengers have changed. They want gyms, healthier eating choices and activities. Yes, a pizzeria may be open all night, but most cruise lines have done away with the midnight buffet."
Given Freed's lack of defensiveness or even concern, I'll do some worrying on her behalf.
On one hand, RCCL has successfully positioned itself as the line for cruisers who are active; its ads have focused on kayaking, rock-wall climbing and surf riders. And in renderings of the Oasis of the Seas that have appeared in advertisements, guests are overwhelmingly upright and moving, standing even when an empty chair is nearby. Though I suspect that more calories continue to be consumed than burned aboard cruise ships, it's also likely that most guests are not pining over the loss of the midnight buffet.
But "WALL-E" might raise two concerns in the minds of cruise executives.
First, public perceptions about cruising lag behind reality, and that's one reason why the percentage of the population that has cruised remains stalled in the teens.
Second, the spaceship scenes not only poke fun at cruise stereotypes, they also hit the nail squarely on the head when showing passengers addicted to the screen that's in front of them.
While this might not be a huge issue for older adults who cruise, younger generations get their kicks disproportionately from virtual activity. (And it's correlated to obesity: A study by University of Texas researchers published in the Journal of Adolescence links high video game use to "higher weight status.")
Cruise lines aren't ultimately responsible for our weight issues; they followed consumer preferences to gorging, and then to healthier choices. Likewise, today they're accommodating young guests' preferences by providing large game rooms. And it's not just the cruise lines: A parallel phenomenon occurs at all-inclusives and large resorts.
As a parent, I groan when I see these rooms. I now must also travel with my household rules limiting the time my kids spend in front of screens, and that's baggage I'd prefer to leave at home.
The renderings of the Oasis of the Seas, our imminent cruise ship of the future, show passengers to be fit and trim (children included). My fingers are crossed that this vision will remain closer to reality than Pixar's. If not, Freed's guess about the spaceship's departure date could be wrong; it's possible that the ship in "WALL-E" is a satirical look at the future, not the past, of cruising.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].